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The Cunning of Cosmetics

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Jeffery Kipnis commentary on Herzog & de Meuron projects and cosmetic skins.
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  THE UNNING OF COSMETICS  A PERSON L REFLECTION ON THE RCHITECTURE OF HERZOG ND DE MEURON Jeffrey Kipnis During t he toasts celebrating the opening of Light Construction the deep seated tension broke out in bristling exchange between Herzog and Koolhaas. El Croquis 79 How long now-six years? eight?-since 1 tossed off my first snide dismissal of the work of He r zog de Meuron. Of cou r se, for a critic such as I advocate of the architectu r al avant-garde, in t ellectual apologist fo r the extreme, th e exotic, the subversive, was it not de ri gueur to scorn the superficial proposit i ons of HdM? While o ne br anch of the avant-garde proposed exotic form as a vector of architectura l resistance, HdM offered flagrantly simp le Cartesian volumes . While another branch cultivated event-theo ry nto seditious programming tec hni ques , HdM ind u lged contentedly in expedient, reductive planning. HdM s fixation on the cosmetic, on fastidious de tails , eye-catching materials and st unning facades appeared frivolous in compa r ison with those other more ove rtly radical experiments. Even worse, the overall cast of their work seemed complicit, i not aligned, wit h he taste for Neo-Modern C onfections that had already begun to emerge as the ha ll mark of the reactionary New Right in Europe and elsewhere. The question more to the point, then, is when exactly did my infatuation with HdM s work begin? When did I start returning to publications to gape secretly, furtively, at the Goetz Gallery (figs. 8 and 189), the Signa l Box (figs. 17 and 191), Ricola Europe (figs. 187 and 188), or th e sublime Greek Orthodox Church (fig. 190), like a schoolboy ogling soft porn? Did my longi ng for the work grow over time, or was I beguiled from the outset, my oafish snubs but the hackneyed disavowals of one discomforted by th e hrows of forbidden desire? In any case, it was no t until March 1996 that the utter cunning of HdM s project dawned on me in its full dimen sion. By then, I had already realized t hat t heir architecture s ability to insinuate itself into my psyche was a power - ful effect that, like it or not, must be taken seriously. All the more so, when it occurred to me that HdM s w ork did not, by virtue of any polemic, force itself on me against my will; ra ther, like a computer virus, it sl ipped in to my consciousness through my will, eluding any and all resistance as it b egan to reprogram my architectural th oughts and feelings . In March 1996 I encountered an Arch Plus special issue on HdM. What s hocked me into a new awa r en ess was not any particular essay in the issue, th ough it contained several excellen t ones. ' Rather, the agent of my ep i phany was th e unceremonious cover title: Herzog et de Meuron: Minimalismus und Ornament. As soon as I saw it, I knew some thing was wrong, very wrong ; I could feel it, though I could not quite put my finger on it.  Thumbing through the magazine, I found that Nikolaus Kuhnert had, without comment, separated the firm s work into two sections: Ornament held all of the projects with printed surfaces, Minima/ism everything else-a brute act of blunt taxonomy . The source of the uneasiness spawned by the cover title became apparent. Ho w could such a coherent collection of works by one architectural intelligence lend itself so easily to partitioning into such antagonistic categories as Minimalism and Ornament? At first glance, the division seemed quite sensible but, as might be expected, it did not sustain closer inspec tion. For example, Kuhnert placed the Signal Box-a key w ork in the HdM oeuvre-in the Minimalist section, no doubt in respect of the simple form, the monoli t hic uniformity effected by the copper banding system, and the functional role attributed. On the other hand, does not the luxurious field of copper bands also fit any non-trivial definition of architectural ornament, even, as we shall see, i it also undermines the concept of ornament at the same time? After all, each band was painstakingly w arped to engender a mesmerizing, ephemeral gesture in light, shado w and form over a arge area of the skin, one much larger than required to admit natural light to the few inte- rior spaces . And the functional rationalization of the system as a Faraday Cage is merely a smokescreen.   My point , however, is not to contest the details of Kuhnert s partitioning; rather, it is to admire the insidious guile of an archi tecture able to infiltrate so effortlessly such irreconcilable categories, and, in doing so, begin to dismantle and reform them. Already I have touched on the most potent characteristics of HdM s architecture: an urbane, cunning intelli- gence and intoxicating, almost erotic allure. It is these traits that enable it to go anywhere, to go everywhere, into site and psyche alike, to appear ever fascinating yet ever harmless even as it plies its undermining subterfuges and sly deceits. And while this constellation of themes and its attendant techniques are ancient indeed,   the most pre cise placement of HdM s work in contemporary architecture is simply that it is the coolest architecture around. All that remains for us then, is to watch it in action, to speculate a bit on its methods, and to begin an audit of its gains and losses. Let us return to the Signal Boxes. Would it be too much to liken them to sirens, to temptresses that lure the unsuspecting into dangerous territory? The sirens of the Odyssey, if I remember correctly, charmed sailors into hazardous waters with the sheer beauty of their voices, voices that sang but said nothing, meant nothing , promised nothing . Do you not feel the song of the Signal Box? Are you not enticed by it, drawn to a distant train yard to drink in its presence with your eyes? What pulls you there? And why go, w hen the only thing certain is that there is absolutely nothing for you there, save, perhaps, peril? In its single-minded obsession with Unspeakable Beauty , the Signal Box series is exemplary of the HdM project at its most radical. To achieve its edgy a mode HdM brushed aside the Big Questions that such a project would, today, customarily trigger . HdM ignores the fact that the signal station belongs to remote networks and inter-urban infrastructures and, therefore, that its architecture should be conceived more in terms of flo ws and intensities than in terms that might be likened to the visual niceties that have come to appoint bourgeois travel. Nor does HdM give a moment s thought to the inappropriateness of High Design in the harsh, dirty reality of the site, though the shrill understatement of the Signal Box is as hip to its surroundings as a gangster in colors is to South Central L.A. In that regard, the Signal Box raises doubts about the subtly patronizing fantasy of a context so brutal , so unrelentingly utilitarian that it cannot even broach the cloying frippery of design . 430  Make no mis t ake about it, thes e are not jus t hypothetic a  interroga ti ons made in the name of the infrastruc turalists and dir ty realists. In h is published comments to HdM, Rem Koolhaas first remarks on t he undeniable b eau ty of t he firm's facades . Then, on the way to framing his final indictment as a question, Is ar c hitecture rei n fo r cement therapy or does t play a role in redefining, undermining, ex p lod i ng, e rasing? [sic ] , he begins to signa l his misgivi n gs by asking HdM, Does every situation have a correct architecture? no doubt with the Signal Box in mind. ' For t he proponents of exotic form, the signal station series would have been an opportunity of another il k. Largely free from the de mands of human pr ogram, unencumbered by historical or formal typo l ogy , unobligated to a prevailing contextual language of architectu r al merit, the signal station offered an ideal prospect to experiment with the ve ry limits of form . Furthermo r e, because seve r al would be built, the morphological research could have been extended to he fascina t ing question of non-prototypical serialization . T hat HdM sho uld adhere so cl osely to the box, that they should even consider developing a prototype was anathema. To this group of architects, the ap pearance in the second Signal Box of warped surfaces will surely seem a ac it admission of the fu tility of the srcinal pro t otypical ambition and the inadequacy of the Cartesian box. As we shall see, however, nothing could be furthe r from the truth. In br ief, the design of the Signal Box shows no concern wh atsoever for flows or event-structu r es , for realism or new form . Its architecture is entirely a matter of cosmetics, a hypnotic web of visual seduct i ons that emanate entirely from the cop p er ban d system, a system, it should be said, that is in fact not the building's actual sk n , which lies jus t beneath; t only p oses as t he bui l ding's skin . T he p oin t here, however, is not to diminish the architectural import of the Signal Boxes by relegating them to cosmetic, but to embrace their irresistible intrig u e, to acknow l edge their vitality, and in doing so, to assert the transfo r mative power of the cosmetic. Some care must be taken he r e, for the osmeti is not just another memb er of the fam ily of decorative architectu r al appurtenances collect i vely known as ornamenta t ion. The ield of ef f ects of the cosmetic is qui te different from those of its relatives , and it is prec i sely in t hose differences th at H dM 's co n tempora ry project is born. Ornaments attach as discreet entities to the body like jewelry, rein f orcing the structure and integrity of t he body as such. Cosmetics are indiscree t, with no relation to the body other than to take it for granted. Cosmetics are erotic camouflage; t hey re l ate al ways and only to skin, to particular regions of skin. Deep l y intr ic ate ly material, cosmetics nevertheless exceed materiality to become modern alchemicals as they trans-substan ti ate skin i nto image, desirous or disgusting. Where ornaments r etain their ident i ty as entities, cosmetics wo rk as fields, as blush or shadow or highlight, as aura or air . Th i nness, adherence, and diffuse extent are cr ucia l to t he cosmetic ef fect, which is mo re visceral than intellectual, mo re atmospheric than aesthet i c. Virtuosity at ornamentation r equi r es bal ance, proportion, pr ec is ion; vi r tuosity at cosmetics requires something else, something menacing: paranoid con trol, control gone out of control, schizo-control. T hough the c osmeti c effect does no t work at the level of the body, nevertheless, it requires a body - or at least a ace-as a vehicle. Like vea l for the saucier, or the gaunt, featureless visage of cho i ce recent ly for make - up artists , the ideal vehicle for the extreme cosmetician is a body, face, or form denuded of its own ability to engender affect. These days, the effects of form as such are ust too obtuse to be cool. 3  If the attitude of the cosmetician toward the body is a minimalism, then it is of a very different sort than the Minimalism spawned by the art world more than two decades ago. While the two share a desire to collapse the time of impact of a work to the immediate, the former pursued that goal by distilling form and material into an essence that radiated (spiritual) affect through unmediated presence. The reductions of cosmetic minimalism, on the other hand, are anorexic, a compulsion to starve the body until it dissolves into pure (erotic) affect, like a Cheshire cat in heat. Witness the necrophilic charge of the anemic Kantonsspital Pharmacy, or speculate on the rejection of HdM s dazzling Greek Orthodox Church by the bishop. Was it because he grasped the conversion of its space from the spiri tual to the erotic? Thus   Kuhnert s bipartile distribution missed the decisive achievement of HdM s work thus far, th e sub l imation of the antithesis between ornamentalism and minimalism into a new coherence. The most famous example of this synthesis to date is Ricola Europe, with its renowned nourish, walls patterned with translucent tiles silk-screened with lea f images. When backlit, as seen in the interior during the day, the leaf pattern takes on an empty, numbing, camp fascination of a Warholian wallpaper. On the exterior, the images are rarely visible, emerging only fleetingly as hallucinations when hit at exactly the right angle by glancing ligh t. Photos (ac tu ally, photographers) of this building tend to exaggerate the leaf image to the point of kitsch; i ts presence on the exterior is actually much rarer and more ephemeral. But in any case, this slick, eye - ca tchi ng device belies th e range and depth of technique HdM exercised in realizing the full cosmetic sophistication of the work. As usua l the form is starved to skin and bones and gutted of any distracting conceit in p lan. The silk-screened panels tile the two long walls; starting on the unde rs ide of the cantilevered awning, the strip paneling turns to wrap down the wall. The effect of the wrap is o subve rt the integrity of the two distinct formal elements of the building, the facade and the soffit, blurring them into a single field. Ironically, this leaves the thin strip of clear glass reveal ing the terminal tru ss of the roof extensions as strictly speaking, the only actual facade. To further distance the thin, weightless leaf field from a wall, even a curtain-wall, it is edged like a draped veil. The edg i ng causes the long, thin strips to seem to stream from the top to the ground, tri ckling so gently that the slight thickness of the upper tra ck of the horizontal glass doors breaks the flow. This streaming illusion on the panels blurs the front, translucent fields into the side concrete walls. On those sides, roof water flows ove r the conc r ete, causing it to refl ect like glass when wet and leaving a ield of parallel vertical tracks, the resi d ue of evaporated flow. In the same device at the wraith-like echo of Ricola Europa, the Remy Zaugg studio, iron on the roof dyes the rainwater rust red to create a more dramatic i somewhat disconcerting effect. At Ricola Europe, these now tracks and the pattern of widths they delimit reiterate uncannily the field of translucent tiles and seams in fo rm and proportion. For all of its modes of assertiveness, its blatant use of images, its indulgence in materiality, and the bluntness of its form, the genius of the Ricola Europa is that the building, in it self and as such   is never there . Its promise of stark presence withdraws to leave pure allure, a our de force of architectural cosmetics. As with other cri ti cal treatment of HdM s work, e.g., as neo-modernism or as applied minimal art, the question of cosmetics with all of its allusions to make - up and scents, to skins and bodies, would have only the force of anal ogy we re it not for the matter of HdM s technique. 43
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